Extrajudicial Killing In The Philippines: Protecting Human Rights In The Wake Of Presidential Endorsement


On the 30th of June, Rodrigo Duterte took office as the president of the Philippines. In the first five days of his leadership a reported thirty “drug-dealers” have been killed and US$20 million worth of narcotics seized in police operations across the nation. Duterte’s presidential campaign was heavy on anti drug and drug related crime rhetoric, announcing his aspirations of reinstating the death penalty and encouraging the extrajudicial executions of individuals suspected in participating in drug related activities.

Section 3 (a) of the United States Torture Victim Protection act provides a legally accepted definition for extrajudicial killings as:

“A deliberate killing not authorized by a previous judgment pronounced by a regular constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized people. Such term, however, does not include any killing that, under international law is lawfully carried out under the authority of a foreign nation.”

Widespread use of extrajudicial killing, or similarly summary executions, across the globe has consistently received international criticism, particularly from international law organisations and human rights bodies that argue that in bypassing due legal process, the basic human rights of individuals subject to extrajudicial violence are violated. Therefore, those perpetuating said violence are in breach of human rights law, or indeed if contextualised in a certain way, guilty of committing crimes against humanity. It is the purpose of this paper to consider the current promotion of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines and propose an alternative approach in order to minimise human rights violations.

In order to provide context for the current situation in the Philippines, brief consideration will be paid to the lead up to Duterte’s election. Whilst President-Elect Duterte openly encouraged the extrajudicial killing, offering both bounties and medals to members of the public for the summary executions of suspected drug dealers. “Please feel free to call us, the police, or do it yourself if you have a gun, you have my support […] shoot him and I’ll give you a medal”, he announced to a group of supporters in the southern city of Davao, where he had previously served as mayor for over 22 years. Recently, rewards of P5.5 million (USD $120, 000) were offered for every drug lord slain, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported.

Whilst many attributed Duterte’s hard-line stance against drug offenders in the lead up to his ascension to office simply as campaign rhetoric, a consideration of his time as mayor of Davao raises cause for concern. The now President of the Philippines is alleged to have links to already existing vigilante groups such as the Davao Death Squad (DDS), whom Human Rights Watch (HRW) have attributed 1424 summary executions to, as well as other copycat groups in the local area since 1998, and reported that membership numbers had climbed beyond 500 personnel by 2009. At the time, the U.N. General Assembly reported that “the mayor of Davao City has done nothing to prevent these killings, and his public comments suggest he is in fact supportive.” HRW stated that victims were selected because they were suspected of being criminals. Amnesty International added in a separate report that the victims of these summary executions included minors. More recently, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon released a statement condemning Duterte’s “apparent endorsement of extrajudicial killings, which is illegal and a breach of fundamental rights and freedoms.”

As aforementioned, in the first five days after Duterte assumed office, the police have reported the summary execution of thirty alleged criminals. This takes the total number of suspects subject to extrajudicial execution to over 100 since Duterte won elections in May, The Guardian reported. In addition to the apparent injustice that is the revocation of a suspected criminals right to life before being afforded their right to trial, the deployment of state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings has seemingly extended to other criminal classes. That is, there have been reports that in addition to drug dealers, rapists and car thieves are also among those that have been subject to summary executions. Furthermore, and certainly challenging the already precarious legitimacy of the use of extrajudicial executions, Duterte called upon Filipino civilians to kill drug addicts: “if you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself”, reports the Australian agency ABC news. Considering these reports, the blurred legal, ethical and procedural lines that exist around the state endorsed extrajudicial killings by police and civilians of criminal suspects are seemingly getting worse as the pool of potential suspects grows larger.

As police are bestowed with a certain level of judicial responsibility and power there are circumstances in which summary executions may be permissible or justified whilst they are performing as state actors. For example, a number of recent police reports pertaining to the shooting deaths of criminal suspects feature occasions in which police were met with violent resistance or engaged by small arms fire, and therefore, it is within their power to engage in the use of lethal force. Although, this becomes problematic in the current context when you consider that alleged criminals, or even innocent civilians, understand that state actors such as the police are imbued with extrajudicial power over their lives and are not obliged to process them through the legal system. It is therefore not unreasonable to expect individuals to resort to violence when approached by members of law enforcement when the potential for a summary execution may be just as likely as questioning or an arrest.

It is likely that this problem will grow exponentially worse as the number of innocent deaths increase. In addition to the expansion of public distrust against state actors, the prevalence of extrajudicial violence employed by non-state actors, as encouraged by Duterte, may lead to a further break down of law and order nationwide, rather than serving as a solution to preexisting crime. The Guardian reported on the 1st of July that an unidentified body had been found in Manila, the nations capital, with its head wrapped in tape and wearing a sign that read: “I am a pusher”. This suggests that a new wave of civilian-led extrajudicial killings may now be underway. Similarly, as demonstrated by the emergence of the DDS in Davao, violence at the hand of non-state actors, although legitimized by referring to public needs, can have a devastating effect on lives and undermine the nations legal system.

In 2003, Thaksin Shinawatra, then prime minister of Thailand launched a war on drugs to reduce international drug trafficking and local drug use. Human rights organization Human Rights Watch reported:

“In the first 3 months of the campaign, there were some 2,800 extrajudicial killings. In 2007, an official investigation found that more than half of those killed had no connection whatsoever to drugs.”

This is the very same issue that currently threatens the Philippines. The main difference being, however, is that where the Thai government launched a war on drugs, Duterte has instigated a total war on crime, the scale of which has the potential to be much larger, and thus, the death toll higher.

In addition to being an effective method for achieving campaign support and evoking a sense of national social responsibility, Duterte’s appeal to the public for help may also suggest that the preexisting state institutions may be ill-equipped for dealing with the current level of crime plaguing the Philippines. In granting police the power to perform extrajudicial killings, strain is removed from the judicial system, and by extending this power to civilians the police are in turn relieved of pressure. Additionally, widespread corruption throughout all levels of state infrastructure could certainly be a factor in the new governments reluctance to utilize bureaucratic processes and instead revert to street-level problem solving. To quote Duterte:

“The problems that bedevil our country today which need to be addressed with urgency are corruption, both in the high and low echelons in government, criminality in the streets and the rampant sale of illegal drugs in all strata of Philippine society and the breakdown of law and order.”

Whilst this paper has argued the currently proposed methods for dealing with the “rampant” crime are likely to encourage the breakdown of law and order rather than prevent it, the corruption condemned by Duterte could lie at the heart of the problem.

Time needs to be taken to investigate said corruption and to carefully restructure the government and state institutions in order to allow the nation to move forward. Establishing a safe society as Duterte seemingly intends to do, is of the deepest importance, although, his frustration with widespread corruption and hardline approach to crime may be interfering with his ability to do so. Superficially, the government’s current trajectory seems to be laying down the groundwork for the further decay of law and order, but it is still early days. An exploration into the social issues that may be the root cause of the high levels of crime is also necessary.

There is a popular assumption that the rampant drug crime is closely associated with widespread poverty. It would be responsible for the government conduct research into pressing social issues and consider establishing social institutions and programs to assist disadvantaged citizens. One such example would be the provision of social support for those affected by drug addiction rather than the current approach that favours their extermination. A shift away from retributive rhetoric and justice and a stronger focus on restoration and rehabilitation could be the directional change the Philippines needs to establish a safe society that values and protects human rights.

Further, the notion of extrajudicial killing is not directly addressed by international law. Whilst the summary execution of civilians or combatants is deemed a war crime under the law of armed conflict, the same provisions are not afforded to civilians in times of relative peace. Similarly, widespread murder enacted upon a civilian population is encompassed in the legal definition of crimes against humanity. However, once again, the specific notion of extrajudicial killing is jarringly absent from international legislation.

In the case of the Philippines, the widespread nature of the current extrajudicial violence is certainly reminiscent of both the aforementioned international criminal law paradigms, although abstract enough for them to remain inapplicable. The specific criminalisation of extrajudicial killings on an international level could prove an effective safeguard against the perpetuation of such violence in the future. International law must address the killings that take place outside of the judicial process and work towards further clarifying any grey areas such as those pertaining to extrajudicial violence. The right to life is arguably the most important of the human rights and thus must be preserved and protected in as many ways as possible.

Sebastien Miller


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